For contemporary society nuclear and hazardous waste constitutes a highly debatable and controversial issue. From political and economic perspective, society needs cheap and accessible energy to meet its continuous needs. Although nuclear energy is the most effective, accessible and reliable way to satisfy these needs, the problem of nuclear waste, the spent fuel assemblies that are extremely hot and radioactive, becomes inevitable. Nuclear waste consists of highly radioactive fission by-products, which are capable of releasing ionizing radiation, which in turn is capable of changing the structure of atoms or molecules and is thus highly destructive to living cells (Shrader-Frechette, 1993). This, states Shrader-Frechette, is what “accounts for its ability to cause carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic damage – to induce, respectively, cancer, genetic defects, and birth defects” (Shrader-Frechette, 1993:13). It is because of its highly radioactive nature that nuclear fuel wastes must be carefully confined and isolated from human and environmental exposure. It is the core reason why nuclear and hazardous waste represents such a pressing public dilemma. This paper aims to discuss and analyze different perspectives on nuclear and hazardous waste.
Nuclear waste disposal is based on the principles of concentration and confinement to isolate the radioactive material from the biosphere for periods of time that are in the tens of thousands of years (International Atomic Agency, 1993). In many countries that produce nuclear fuel waste, geological disposal has been accepted as the preferred disposal method (Soloway, 2003). Geologic disposal of spent nuclear fuel has been referred to as “reverse mining” (Easterling and Kunreuther, 1995). The waste canisters are placed in a deep underground cavity located in an area whose geology is stable. Once full, the repository will be in-filled using the earth and rock that was dug out (Easterling and Kunreuther, 1995). All geological disposal concepts utilize a ‘multiple barrier’ approach to isolate the wastes from the biosphere (Soloway, 2003). A multiple barrier system, which consists of engineered and natural or geological barriers, is designed for two purposes: to prevent leakage of radioactive material into the surrounding environment and to provide the necessary time for the radioactivity to decay (Duncan, 2002). Engineered barriers are reported to be significant during the first few hundreds to thousands of years, while the geological barriers become the important factor during the next thousands to tens of thousands of years (International Atomic Agency, 1993).
From the critical perspective, nuclear and hazardous waste has been always accompanied with public resistance and criticism. Public opposition to nuclear waste facilities has been dubbed by many as the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) syndrome, an “intense and often adamant resistance by the local population” (Kraft and Clary, 1993:96). Although it is considered one of the most significant barriers to long-term nuclear waste management, the phenomenon is not unique to nuclear and hazardous waste facilities; many unpopular facilities such as landfills, prisons, affordable housing projects, mental health hospitals and even daycares have been opposed as the result of NIMBY (Inhaber, 1998). NIMBYism is often considered an irrational response by a poorly informed local public (Kraft and Clary, 1993). When related to hazardous waste facilities, it is also perceived by some as a tactic used by “chemophobes and environmental fanatics” as a means of disrupting the industrialized economy (Rabe, 1994). This motive suggests the premise that if all communities took that same stance, the government will be unable to site the facilities anywhere. This would force industry to reduce waste production, through, for instance, a reduction in nuclear power consumption (Inhaber, 1991).
On the other hand, Rabe (1994) argues that NIMBY is simply a realistic local response to poorly designed national and sub-national policies. Furthermore, as Bingham (1984) argues, NIMBY is a rational response by a local community to proposed facilities that would make that community worse off. Others have also dismissed the claim that the selfish attitudes of local communities prevent the attainment of societal goals by preventing the siting of facilities, which provide an important social benefit (Lake, 1993). Lake argues that such facilities are needed more by capital than by society, and by a state striving to reproduce the capital-labor relationship, and that therefore, local protectionism characterized as NIMBY represents a barrier not to societal goals but to the goals of capital (Lake, 1993). The siting of a hazardous waste incinerator, for instance, is only one of the possible solutions to the problem of industrial hazardous waste production. Lake argues that rather than restructure production in order to produce less waste, which would concentrate the costs on industry, decision makers have often opted instead to try and site a waste facility, which concentrates the costs on the local community (Lake, 1993).
From critical perspective, opposition to nuclear waste facilities has largely been attributed to the public’s perceptions of the risks such facilities present (Kuhn, 1998). According to Kuhn (1998), the public perception is that the risks associated with a nuclear waste facility are “unacceptably high and threatening” (Kuhn, 1998:2) and would result in an inequitable burden on the host community. This is despite the fact that a nuclear waste repository is likely to reduce the “aggregate radiation risk faced by current and future generations” (Easterling, 1992:444). Although experts in the nuclear industry generally regard the risks from a nuclear waste facility to be relatively small, the general public tends to view these risks as being significantly greater. For instance, a survey conducted by Kunreuther et al. (1988) found that respondents rated the risks from a potential nuclear waste repository, such as the probability of wastes being leached into groundwater or transportation accidents, as being significantly higher than other sources.
From proponents’ perspective on nuclear and hazardous waste, the primary message is that facilities are generally safe and relatively risk-free. Practically, advocates communication on this issue is characterized with attempts to minimize the risks associated with facilities. For instance, claims on the Skull Valley nuclear facility included some very general but still characteristic statements, namely: “The real risk of this while nuclear waste issue is very, very, very small, almost nonexistent” (Rex 1997:A14). Many scientists and specialists in nuclear waste management argue that people opposed to nuclear and hazardous waste facilities are inconsistent with their attitudes towards similar types of risks. As Barrowes states, “These same people freely use medical X-rays, medical radioactive isotope tracers, radiation treatment for cancers, and radioactive components in smoke alarms…” (Barrowes, 1999:A18). Other advocates assert that opponent concerns are the result of fear tactics and inflated rhetoric espoused by politicians, political activists, and the media. In addition, the majority of proponents compares nuclear fuel with other energy sources, particularly coal, arguing that nuclear power is a much cleaner, safer, and less polluting alternative. Some even suggest that in replacing conventional energy sources, the nuclear energy helps to restore environmental conditions. As Northard affirms, “Nuclear power provides 20 percent of our nation’s electricity in a safe and reliable fashion that helps keep our air and water clean. Without nuclear power the United States will not be able to meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases and prevent global change” (Northard, 1999:A14).
Validity of reasons expressed by opponents and proponents of nuclear and hazardous waste evidently demonstrates that the dilemma of waste disposal and facilities for it will be a highly controversial and debatable issue for a long time. However, from the critical perspective, one can hardly imagine contemporary society operating without nuclear energy, benefits it brings and problems it solves. Position of proponents of nuclear and hazardous waste goes in accord with social, economic and technological progress, while opponents’ idea regarding this issue is a step back. Moreover, philosophy of “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” is no longer viable in our highly globalized and connected world. From the critical perspective, the debate on nuclear and hazardous waste is a question of public trust in government, federal agencies, technology and science, and whether this issue receives a global and convincing public support solely depends on them.
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